Rushbearing in its present form goes back in Grasmere to the 1840s. The tradition though is much older and probably dates back to pre-Christian festivals. The present Rushbearing is a celebration of the Parish Church and its patron saint St Oswald.
In pre-Reformation times, the floors of churches were of soil, and rushes were used as a covering. There are entries of payments for rushes at St. Margaret’s Westminster (1544), at Kirkham (Lancs) (1604), and at Castleton (Derbyshire) (1749). At Grasmere, not only was the floor of the church of earth until 1841, but bodies were buried in the Church until 1823. It was vitally important that the atmosphere of the church be kept fragrant, therefore; which makes it highly likely that fresh rushes were laid on the floor not only at the Rushbearing on St. Oswald’s Day (5th August) but at regular intervals in the meantime also. There is a strange, sweet, pungent, aromatic smell to green rushes collected indoors, which would have been important for this purpose. The church floor was raised and flagged in 1841, and the practical necessity of rushbearing was thus removed. However the ceremonies associated with it live on.
There are Rushbearings at other places nearby, but as the Grasmere Parish Magazine of 1890 claimed, “Of these, Grasmere is the most distinguished, as Grasmere is the mother church of both Langdale and Ambleside”.
The rushes and reeds are collected from around the village in the days leading up to Rushbearing and a hard-working team bind the rushes tightly round their frames of the Bearings.
The traditional bearings include the Gold Cross, a processional cross decorated with gold flowers which leads the procession; “Levavi Oculos (‘I will lift up mine eyes’, the first words of Psalm 121, which is sometimes called the Grasmere Psalm!), “Cantate Domino” (‘O sing unto the Lord’, the opening words of Psalm 98), St. Oswald 642, the date when the Christian King Oswald, who is believed to have preached the Gospel in person in Grasmere, probably on the site of the church) was killed in battle by the pagan King Penda of Mercia, the Maypole, the Serpent, reminding us of Satan bound for all time. Other Traditional Bearings include Harp, Lyre, Prince of Wales Feathers, Celtic Cross, Hoops and Circles (symbols of eternity). The Procession also includes many home-made bearings of great ingenuity around a variety of themes.
The rush maidens in their green and white dresses carry the linen Rush Sheet with rushes, reeds and flowers sewn onto the linen. The procession is led by Processional Cross, woven with golden flowers, followed by seven of the Traditional Bearings, Choir, Clergy and Churchwardens, next comes St. Oswald’s Banner and then the Rush Maidens with the Rush Sheet. Next comes the Band and then more Bearings and colourful home-made bearings.
The Procession winds its way past the Gingerbread Shop, up College Street to Sam Read’s Bookshop, then left by the Studio and stops at Moss Parrock for prayers and the singing of the Rushbearing hymn. Then down to Red Lion Square past Dale Lodge, round the corner and back to the church for the Rushbearing Service.
The floor of the Church is thick with fragrant green rushes. The Bearings are placed near the altar rails and between the archways of the Langdale Aisle and the Church is packed to the doors for the service with its special hymns and prayers.
THE RUSHBEARING PICTURE
A painting by Frank Bramley R.A. was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1905 and purchased for the village in 1913. It shows the Rush-Maidens carrying their sheet in the Procession on its way over the bridge from the church to the school field (a route not now taken by the Procession). All the figures represented are portraits of Grasmere people. The painting is in the care of the National Trust, and hangs in the Grasmere Village Hall though it is out of sight for most of the time behind protective wooden shutters.